Maine schools reported another big jump in the number of COVID-19 cases and outbreaks this week, breaking the record set just last week.

And the state’s hospitals are enduring another rise in the number of patients seeking care, with hospitalizations rising to a near-record level Friday.

Schools statewide reported 8,673 cases over the past 30 days – a 34 percent increase from a week ago and a 75 percent jump in two weeks, according to the latest data posted by the Maine Department of Education.

The number of schools classified with official outbreaks rose from eight last week to 35 as of Thursday, with schools affected from York to Falmouth and Winthrop to Princeton in Washington County. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines an outbreak as when at least 15 percent of students and staff are absent.

“It’s alarming,” said Peter Lancia, superintendent in Westbrook, where the middle school has reported 62 cases and the high school has reported 31 cases in the last 30 days. Neither constitutes an official outbreak. Both schools held classes remotely on Friday. The district has about 2,400 students.

“We’ve seen a record number of cases – over 200 across the district since we came back from the holidays,” Lancia said. “Our numbers have started to go down, but the virus is still here and we’re just trying to manage the best we can.”

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Portland had 12 schools in official outbreak status on the state website Friday: Casco Bay and Portland high schools; Lincoln, King and Moore middle schools; and East End, Longfellow, Ocean Avenue, Presumpscot, Reiche, Rowe and Talbot elementary schools, according to district officials.

“School outbreak status does not necessarily warrant school closure and can be evaluated on a case-by case basis,” the district said in a statement Friday. “The CDC and our administration will continue to monitor absences and case counts in these schools and evaluate if any further action is warranted.”

The state posts the number of cases at each school in the past 30 days. In Portland, the totals range from 138 cases at Portland High School to 43 cases at Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School.

The high number of cases in the Portland district led to several elementary schools shifting classes to remote learning in the past two weeks, including three classes at Lyseth Elementary School canceled this week. The disruptions were triggered by staffing shortages and efforts to keep outbreaks from spreading.

“In keeping with our goal to minimize disruptions to student learning, we are looking at options like closing classrooms, programs and grades or teams, switching students to remote learning, before we close a whole school,” the district said in a statement to the school community Friday.

Portland’s latest report to the community also included a sign of hope that things will improve in the coming weeks. The pace of new infections in the schools slowed in the past week, with 256 new cases detected, down from 526 the week before.

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The reports from Portland and the state education department do not say how many of the cases are adults and how many are children. It also isn’t clear how many of the students and staff contracted the virus in schools or through exposures outside of schools. Many schools are conducting periodic pooled testing, which detects infections early to prevent students from spreading the virus.

SCHOOLS STRUGGLE TO STAY OPEN

Schools across the state have struggled to stay open and many have had to switch to remote learning, mostly because of COVID-related absences causing shortages of teachers, bus drivers and other school employees.

In South Portland, Superintendent Tim Matheney is hoping a slight increase in overall student attendance – up from 84 percent last week to 88 percent this week – is a harbinger of future improvement. Typical pre-pandemic attendance this time of year was in the low to mid-90s.

On Friday, 350 of South Portland’s 2,963 students were absent, which was the second-lowest absentee total since returning from the holiday break.

“We are fortunate to see a cautiously optimistic trend,” Matheney said. “The trend for students is moving in a positive direction. Staff-wise, we’re also seeing some improvement where the pandemic has been exaggerating staff shortages that were already an issue, including in transportation and food services.”

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Matheney said pooled testing will be expanded to several additional schools in the coming week, although the district is experiencing delays in getting test results because the vendor is dealing with pandemic conditions as well.

Lancia, Westbrook’s superintendent, said the district is staying diligent with masking, distancing and encouraging students and staff to stay home when they test positive, feel under the weather or show the slightest signs of illness.

“The symptoms now are more mild, but even the slightest symptoms can be signs of COVID-19, even a runny nose, so it’s hard to detect,” Lancia said. “But we can’t give up. We have to remain focused.”

COLLEGES ALSO SEEING MORE CASES

Maine’s colleges and universities also are seeing more cases.

The University of Maine System reported 398 positive tests of COVID-19 in the last 14 days, compared to 67 positive results from the Dec. 17 report, which was the last report before the system’s winter break. At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, 37 students and 53 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 this month.

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Meanwhile, the number of patients in Maine hospitals climbed to 422 Friday, up from 412 on Thursday.

The number of inpatients peaked at 436 on Jan. 13. Of those hospitalized Friday, 104 were in intensive care and 55 were on ventilators. While the number of overall patients has spiked during the omicron surge, the number of critically ill patients has remained flat in recent weeks. That’s consistent with research showing omicron, while far more contagious, generally causes less severe symptoms than previous strains.

While most Maine residents are fully vaccinated, the majority of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, according to state health officials.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported two additional COVID-19 deaths Friday and added 1,357 confirmed cases to the total number of people infected during the pandemic. The daily confirmed case count does not reflect how many people are actually contracting the virus because the state has been unable to keep up with a flood of positive tests that have to be screened to separate out people who had multiple positive tests.

The state has been receiving more than 2,000 positive tests each day over the past two weeks, up from about 1,000 each day last month and 400 to 600 each day during the fall surge.


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